The rise of Iran's drone and ballistic missile industry

The rise of Iran's drone and ballistic missile industry
Russia has transformed an Iranian-made surveillance drone into a kamikaze weapon and used it to devastating effect against Ukraine's civilian infrastructure, but it has also also reportedly bought ballistic missiles from Tehran that are due to arrive in the combat zone soon. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews October 24, 2022

Russia struck Ukraine’s key civilian infrastructure on October 10, destroying power plants and substations, plunging half the country into darkness just before winter arrives. Low on missiles, Russia has imported hundreds of Iranian Shahed 136 kamikaze drones to deadly effect and over 1,000 more are on their way from Tehran, according to reports. But even more worrying, Russia has also ordered Iran’s deadly long-range ballistic missiles that could be used to smash Ukraine’s economy beyond repair, and they could arrive “very soon,” according to reports.

Ukraine put up a good fight against the flock of 330 drones that have been flown against Ukrainian cities in the last two weeks, according to Defence Ministry's Intelligence Directorate Head Kyrylo Budanov. He added that the attacks over the weekend of October 22 were as heavy as on the first day and had destroy more power facilities. Around half of Ukraine’s power system has already been destroyed, according to local reports, and thousands of towns and villages have been plunged into darkness.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appears to be sufficiently worried that he softened the conditions for restarting peace talks with Russia at the weekend, where he had ruled them out before. But as Bankova insists that Russia withdraw to its 2014 borders, which would include returning the Crimea, before talks can begin, no discussions are expected any time soon.

Russia has denied that it has been importing Iranian drones, but in a media snafu, Ruslan Pukhov, a pro-Kremlin Russian military expert, appeared on live TV and not realising the microphone was already hot, told the two presenters not to ask too many questions about the drones. “We all know they’re Iranian, but the government won’t admit it,” he said.

Moreover, over the weekend Ukraine reported killing 10 Iranian military advisors in the occupied territories in Donbas, who were there to train Russian soldiers in the use of the drones.

According to reports Russia has ordered a total of 1,700 drones, which are delivered in batches of 300, and at least two batches have already arrived in Russia.

Ukraine is not helpless against the drones, as its Western allies have been rushing in better air defence systems and more are on the way. Of the 330 drones launched against Ukraine in the last week, the Defence Ministry claims to have shot down 222, but that 30% of the drones strike their targets or land nearby, according to Budanov.

Ballistic missiles next

More drones are on the way, but Iran has promised to provide Russia with surface-to-surface missiles as well, two senior Iranian officials and two Iranian diplomats told Reuters.

Iran's First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, two senior officials from Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards and an official from the Supreme National Security Council visited Moscow on October 6 to strike the deal, Reuters reports.

"The Russians had asked for more drones and those Iranian ballistic missiles with improved accuracy, particularly the Fateh and Zolfaghar missiles family," one of the Iranian diplomats told the newswire, which was briefed about the trip.

Part of the deal was for Tehran to supply more Shahed 136 drones. The Fateh 110 and Zolfaghar are much more powerful short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles capable of striking targets at distances of between 300 km and 700 km.

The diplomat denied that the sale of the weapons to Russia breached sanctions imposed on Iran by UN resolution 2231 in 2015.

"Where they are being used is not the seller's issue. We do not take sides in the Ukraine crisis like the West. We want an end to the crisis through diplomatic means," the Iranian diplomat said, adding the missiles will be shipped “very soon.”

The new Iranian short-range missiles could be a game-changer for Russia, which is believed to have used up half of its stock of sophisticated missiles and is reluctant to use any more, keeping the rest as a strategic reserve in case a war breaks out with Nato, writes Tyler Rogoway, editor-in-chief of The War Zone.

“Iranian ballistic missiles work, they carry a much larger payload than the Shahed drones and hit way harder than the land-attack cruise missiles. Russia is low on Iskander-M SRBMs so they are not the threat they were, and they need to keep a good reserve of them for strategic purposes beyond the war in Ukraine,” Rogoway said in a thread. “So, if (really when) the Iranian ballistic missiles arrive, they will likely be turned on electricity infrastructure to absolutely devastating results. These are big targets well within the missile's accuracy envelope.”

If the Iranian missiles arrive then Ukraine's air defence capabilities will have to be upgraded again, with the US-made Patriot missiles as the most effective countering system. However, these are very sophisticated missiles and will require a lot of training before Ukraine’s military can operate them. America's top brass has floated the idea of supplying Patriot missiles, but no decision has been made yet.

The potential arrival of Iranian ballistic missiles has also pushed Israel off the fence and it has promised to help and supply Ukraine. As Israel is subject to frequent rocket attacks it has developed the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system – one of the most advanced systems of its kind in the world – that it may supply to Ukraine.

“[Israel] has developed this capability out of necessity, it exceeds anything the US can offer. They know the long-range suicide drone war is the next combat frontier for them and they are and have been actively developing sensors, including airborne look-down sensors (critical!) to defend against hordes of low and slow flying small signature drones. This is exactly the early warning and track data Ukraine needs badly,” says Rogoway.

Iran’s drone industry

Iran has been producing drones for both military and civilian applications for a number of years to add to the ongoing development of its airborne defence capabilities despite being the target of military sanctions by all global players.

In 2015, Iran unveiled its first domestically produced fighter jet, the Saeqeh. The Saeqeh is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) fighter jet that is used for reconnaissance and surveillance. It has a range of 2,000 km and can stay in the air for up to 24 hours. From this basis the Islamic Republic has gone on to develop a wide range of drones that can carry out reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, battle damage assessment and aerial photography. The way that Russia uses Shahed 136 is to pack them with explosives and dive bomb them into targets, hence the “kamikaze” nickname, which have previously been called "flying lawnmowers of death" or the "Irani", according to Russian media reports.

Iran has been producing drones since the early 2000s, but had success in the mid-2000s when it managed to force down several American spy drones and recover them to strip and study their technology.

The Iranian military has also developed a stealth drone called the IAIO Fotros. This drone is believed to be capable of carrying out airstrikes but there have been no reports from Ukraine of the use of these drones yet.

In addition to its growing arsenal of cheap drones, the Shahed 129 is a medium-altitude long-endurance MALE UAV that made its maiden flight in 2012, and has been sold to both Hezbollah and the Syrian Army. The Shahed 129 has a flight endurance of 24 hours and can carry up to eight missiles. It is also equipped with day and night cameras and can be used for target acquisition and battle damage assessment.

According to US intelligence analysts, the unique advantage Iran has in its use of the drones is the low production cost of around $20,000 per Shahed 136, with most of its parts sourced on the Chinese markets, because of US sanctions. The US analysts have also said that although not as technically advanced as their American counterparts, the Iranian drones are more than a match for the US Army's ScanEagle UAVs, which are used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One senior US intelligence official told The New York Times that "the Iranians have been quite innovative in their ability to produce these systems, and they've shared that technology with others". He added that the US had observed Iranian drones being used by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US intelligence analysts say that Iran is now able to produce around 20 Shahed 136 drones per year, but with Russia’s demand so high, it has likely already massively ramped up production.

In 2014, the Iranian government announced that it would be mass-producing a new line of drones, including the Karrar, which is a drone designed for carrying out airstrikes. The Karrar is a jet-propelled drone that is capable of carrying a payload of four 250kg bombs and has a range of 1,000 km. It is believed to be based on the US Predator drone, which was captured by Iran in 2011.

The attack by Russia on October 4 is the first time that the Shahed 136 drones have been used as an offensive weapon, experts say. It seems that Russia has innovated and turned what was a loitering surveillance drone into a weapon by packing it with explosives.

Iran's drone industry is growing fast

Iran has developed a large domestic arms industry in response to the international sanctions regime and embargoes that had barred it from importing weapons. And production is moving overseas. On May 17, 2022, Iran inaugurated a drone factory in neighbouring Tajikistan, its first drone production facility abroad. The use by Russia of Iranian drones in its war against Ukraine makes clear the weaknesses of its domestic industry and Tehran's growing influence in the drone market, where Turkey has also made great inroads with its highly successful Bayraktar TB2 drones that were used to devastating effect by Azerbaijan in the 2020 war with Armenia.

The Iranian drone industry is expanding rapidly after the government earmarked a large increase in military spending. In addition to the new factory in Tajikistan, Iran has plans to build two more drone production facilities in that country. The Iranian government has also been investing in research and development for new drone technologies.

One of the main drivers of Iran's drone industry is the country's ongoing conflict with Saudi Arabia. In 2016, Iran launched a military drone into Saudi airspace in an attempt to collect intelligence on Riyadh's military installations. The drone was shot down by the Saudis, but the incident demonstrated Iran's capability to launch long-range unmanned aircraft.

Since then, Iran has continued to develop drones for both military and civilian purposes. The country's domestic drone industry is now worth an estimated $1bn and it has now begun to actively export its tech to partners like Russia.

Russia's has not invested in drone technology, leaving it reliant on Iranian low-cost drones to support its military action in Ukraine as well as in Syria. In return, Russia provided Iran with a satellite launch in August, and may provide more, giving the clerical leadership in Tehran a huge bump for its military tech.

Iran is continuing to develop its inventory, which also includes precision-guided missiles with a range of 2,000 km as well as stealth drones that can stay in the day for 24 hours.